State treasurer John Kennedy’s third-time’s-the-charm U.S. Senate campaign is off to quite a start.
Since the beginning of a difficult special legislative session to fix a budget shortfall that’s hovering around $3 billion over this fiscal year and next, Kennedy has positioned himself as the GOP opposition leader to Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is in the unenviable position of trying to keep state government afloat.
Kennedy marked his territory by delivering the televised response to Edwards’ pre-session plea for a bipartisan approach, a situation that can’t have pleased all those other Republicans seeking the open Senate seat.
And he used the spotlight to go full partisan, casting the governor as an eager tax-and-spender and holding himself up as the man with the conservative answers, whether that means cutting thousands of state contracts or just keeping teenagers with acne out of the emergency room. The speech was the highest profile in a series of statements critiquing the new governor, who — and Edwards and Kennedy actually agree on this — inherited the mess from former Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Has Kennedy helped himself in the eyes of voters? Probably.
Has he helped his fellow Republicans in the Legislature, the people who actually have to do the hard work of either raising taxes or making cuts? Not so much.
Edwards, of course, has bristled at Kennedy’s criticism. He obliquely countered them in his televised speech, reminding listeners that “for eight years, we’ve had a conservative governor with a conservative Legislature. If stabilizing the budget were as easy as cutting spending and simply reducing state contracts, that work would have been done.” And he took on Kennedy by name after the session started.
“It’s concerning that the treasurer of our state can’t come to grips with the size of this problem,” Edwards wrote in a news release. “While I am putting forward plans to protect higher education, health care, and TOPS, the treasurer is misleading the public to serve his own political agenda.”
And many Republicans in the Legislature are quietly bristling too. They’re the ones who have to take the tough votes. They’re the ones who either know or are quickly learning that the situation is a lot more difficult than Kennedy implies. And they’re the ones who are now hearing from constituents who are adopting Kennedy’s rhetoric and urging them to just cut, cut, cut.
Kennedy may boil down the complex challenges of health care delivery to folksy anecdotes of alleged abuse, but these lawmakers have heard health care officials explain in committee that they’re already adopting policies to move non-emergency patients into cheaper urgent care or clinics.
Kennedy may get mileage out of talking about state contracts, but just this week, Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne explained to the House Appropriations Committee that it would be “impractical and unrealistic” to cancel many of the state’s 15,000 contracts and start over — an idea being pushed by GOP House caucus chair Lance Harris — or to spend the Legislature’s time poring over each one. These contracts cover just about everything state government does, Dardenne said, from leases to construction projects to cooperative endeavor agreements to consulting. Some save money by reducing the need for employees. Some involve federal funds. Some are multi-year, which means canceling them could invite lawsuits.
Of course, there are potential savings, he acknowledged, and the administration is working on getting a full accounting for future evaluation. But he said the situation is a lot less simple than it might seem.
State Sen. Danny Martiny, of Metairie, head of the Senate’s Republican caucus but an ally of Edwards, is among those who believe the harsh rhetoric has been counterproductive.
“It’s easy to sit on the side and cherry pick things without going into the details,” Martiny said. “You can’t do that in the real world. They’re not all boondoggles. ... You have to consider what goes into it and what work needs to be done. Nobody’s bellying up to the bar to say, ‘Here, take our contract back.’”
State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, a member of the Appropriations Committee who said he considers himself an ally of Kennedy’s and fully supports a full evaluation of state contracts, said he too is concerned about unrealistic expectations.
“The public seems to believe that we have billions we can cut. It’s only about 15 cents on the dollar,” because of federal demands and matches, Schroder said. “Cutting just isn’t that easy.”
No, it’s not. That is, if you’re the person who has to face the consequences rather than simply collect headlines.
Stephanie Grace can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.